Sustainable Meals on a Budget
by Megan Hill
photo by Alicia Guy
I was pretty skeptical, but it’s true: you can cook delicious, healthy meals on a tight budget.
Or at least Leika Suzumura can, and she imparted her seemingly endless knowledge about nutrition and saving money to a small audience at Greenlake’s PCC in February.
“In school, I couldn’t work and I had a child, so a low budget has always been my reality,” said Suzumura, a PCC nutrition educator who taught the Meals within the Family Budget class.
The Bastyr-educated mother of two began the class by multitasking the start of three different meals, cooking rice, black beans and chopping onions for a stir fry.
Her first piece of advice for saving money on those black beans: buy them dried.
“Many people tell me they’re intimidated by dried beans,” she said. But buying canned beans means spending more. And, “cooking from scratch is always going to save you money.”
That one pot of beans would be used for three meals—another way to save time and money.
Suzumura’s first meal was a soba noodle stir fry with frozen vegetables and tofu. The soba noodles Suzumura chose were buckwheat with whole wheat. “It’s important to vary your grains for more nutrients and because of the rise in gluten intolerance. Prevention is important to me,” she said.
The tofu added a protein source for the meal and, she noted, “it’s much less expensive than meat.” She suggested marinating it in her soy sauce-based sauce for more flavor.
Each of the meals that evening contained her Holy Trinity for a balanced diet: protein, vegetables, and whole grain. Vegetables, she said, should take up half your plate.
Suzumura chose frozen vegetables for the stir fry because they’re less expensive. “Some people think you are settling for less with frozen, but most frozen vegetables are flash frozen right off the farm. So they’re actually very fresh and they may have more nutrients than fresh vegetables that have been sitting in a truck,” she said, adding that frozen vegetables provide a good option for cooking in winter.
The colorful dish also included fresh baby bok choy. “What makes vegetables have color are antioxidants,” she said. “So you want your dish to have lots of bright, varied color for those nutrients.”
Suzumura next used the black beans she’d cooked in a pressure cooker to make three dishes: black beans and rice, black bean and corn quinoa salad, and black bean and mango salad. She suggested using a pressure cooker for the beans because it cooks them faster by sealing in heat. And it saves energy, which translates into saving money.
As she sliced more onions for the salads, she threw the scraps into a bowl for use in a soup stock later. This kind of creative reusing cuts down on costs to your bank account and to the environment, as Suzumura mentioned throughout class.
“A low budget also means minimizing the cost to your environment,” she said. “And I try in my personal choices to cut down my impact.” This means buying in bulk to reduce packaging, reusing containers and maybe even avoiding buying meat since it has to be transported in refrigerated trucks. “It takes a lot of energy to produce that product,” Suzumura said.
But don’t kid yourself; buying in bulk isn’t smart if you’re going to trash most of what you buy. “Dried beans are cheaper than cans and have less packaging, but if it’s just going to sit in your cupboard, then you should be realistic,” she said.
The next three dishes came in quick succession, as Suzumura’s black beans provided the base for each. With each dish, she suggested you chop the ingredients to similar sizes for consistency in cooking time and an appealing presentation. The black beans over rice was a little on the bland side, but she kicked it up a notch with the two colorful salads. The first, with sweet corn, peppers, and quinoa started a round of questions about the Peruvian grain.
Quinoa, Suzumura said, is one of the fastest cooking grains and is rich with iron, calcium and potassium. There are two ways to cook it: one uses only enough water to cover the grains, in what Suzumura dubbed a “rice method.” The other, a “pasta method,” involves ample water that is later drained.
“I like the pasta way better because I’ve never mushed my quinoa with the pasta technique,” she said.
Suzumura’s second salad was similar, but with mango instead of quinoa. She used frozen mango to make a sweet, colorful salad I couldn’t get enough of.
To finish the class, Suzumura prepared a sweet jasmine rice for dessert with coconut milk and agave nectar. While she cooked the dessert, Suzumura fielded questions about the nutritional value of everything from kombucha to salmon. She chose the agave nectar for the sweet rice because it pours well compared to honey and has a low glycemic index—good for diabetics, but also because it is absorbed slowly and gives you a sustained energy, “not the spike and fall of sugar.”
I left the class with a full stomach and a plate full of new information. Meals on a budget certainly demand more creativity and planning ahead, but they’re worth it—literally.
Try Leika’s recipe for mango black bean salad.
Find the calendar of upcoming classes at PCC Natural Markets over here.
Megan Hill is a New Orleans native who found Seattle interesting and decided to relocate here.